The mountains and meadows of Camp Hale bustle with mountain bikers, hikers, campers, anglers and off-road motorized explorers all summer. In the winter, backcountry skiers traverse ridge lines between huts and ride chairlifts at Ski Cooper while snowmobilers rev through the valley floor.
The 10th Mountain Division soldiers whose training at Camp Hale prepared them for frigid battles in the Italian Alps during World War II returned to Colorado to seed one of the world’s most vibrant recreation economies.
“The area’s mountains and valleys also shaped our modern outdoor recreation economy, which today supports millions of American jobs,” reads a White House statement announcing the new 53,804-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument — Colorado’s ninth national monument and its first since Browns Canyon in 2015.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday told dignitaries and press gathered at Camp Hale that he taught his family and two boys to ski in Colorado.
“We talk about that at dinner. All those memories that you all understandably take for granted, they are a big deal where I come from,”Biden said.
Even with the praise of recreation, a new layer of federal protection on public lands often sends recreational users clamoring to resist changes that might impact their outdoor pursuits. Like, say, a new national monument designation.
“This is new territory for us,” said Ben Dodge, the executive director of the 10th Mountain Huts, which now has five of its 34 backcountry huts inside the national monument boundaries.
Since the new monument will be managed by the White River National Forest, the 10th Mountain Huts permits with that forest will not change, Dodge says, adding that he does not anticipate any changes in the permitting process, the user experience at the huts or how backcountry travelers can book visits to the huts.
“I think there is potential, actually, for the experience to get better,” he said.
Dodge points to the unique Vail Pass Task Force partnerships at the Vail Pass Recreation Area, which will border the national monument’s northern perimeter, as an example of the Forest Service cultivating broad interests on a shared mission to protect a landscape.
“So many people and so many types of recreation on Vail Pass. Maybe that can be a model for recreation at Camp Hale?” Dodge said. “I’m sure recreation will remain an important part of the Camp Hale area. It’s an economic engine. There are people who are putting food on the table because of the recreation up there.”
The Biden Administration appears to be championing recreation in the new monument. The monument fact sheet provided Wednesday detailed how 10th Mountain veterans who trained at Camp Hale returned to the country and helped found and develop more than 60 ski areas. The $374 billion outdoor recreation industry, the document reads, was “inspired and built by these heroes.” The document promises the monument will support “a wide range of recreation opportunities, recognizing the ongoing use of the area for outdoor recreation, including skiing, hiking, camping and snowmobiling.”
A new management plan for the monument will foster educational resources to better share the Indigenous and military history of the region “while maintaining space for the area’s growing recreation economy,” the White House statement reads.
Even with all the promises to protect recreation, it’s easy to see that the new monument’s perimeter carefully skirts the permit boundaries of Copper Mountain, Breckenridge ski area and Ski Cooper. That’s by design.
“The monument will not affect any permits held by the area’s world-class ski resorts,” the White House statement says.
Dan Torsell, the general manager at Ski Cooper, worked closely with the architects of the CORE Act in Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office. Original drafts of the CORE Act’s Camp Hale Legacy Act protections included the ski area inside what was to be the first-ever National Historic Landscape.
Later versions of the legislation excluded Ski Cooper and specifically noted that nothing in the legislation or its protections would affect “any permit held by a ski area.” It also noted that recreational opportunities inside the historic landscape should include “activities related to the historic use” of the area, like skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, climbing and other trail-based activities.
“After some negotiating, everyone agreed that it’s in our best interest to have that special use permit area excluded from the overlay of any new monument or landscape protection,” Torsell said.
Ski Cooper has about 3,400 acres in its special-use permit issued by the Forest Service. Keeping those acres outside any additional protection kept a clearer path for the Lake County-owned ski area to pursue long-term plans for growth.
Those plans include possibly upgrading the area’s lodge and maybe a chairlift as well as way-down-the-road sketches to install chairlifts on Chicago Ridge, which was added to the ski area’s special-use permit two years ago.
“I really don’t see anything here as a roadblock or a problem,” said Torsell, whose ski area was founded in 1942 to help teach 10th Mountain soldiers to ski and regularly hosts events and gatherings honoring 10th Mountain veterans. “I think preserving Camp Hale will only help us and the entire region.”
Since 2010, mountain bikers also worked closely with Bennet’s office to make sure the CORE Act kept trails around Camp Hale open for mountain biking. Those trails include portions of the Colorado Trail, (sections 7 and 8), as well as the Dirty Copper Triangle, Crane Park to Camp Hale Loop, Miners Creek, Peaks Trail, Spruce Creek Trail and the Wheeler Trail. The International Mountain Bicycling Association in Boulder, or IMBA, on Wednesday said in a statement that the Biden administration is protecting bike-friendly Recreation Management Areas in the new monument.
“We appreciate the administration understanding the value of outdoor recreation, specifically mountain biking within these areas. It’s important these landscapes continue to be compatible with current and historic recreation uses and purposes while protecting iconic cultural places,” Aaron Clark, IMBA’s government affairs policy manager, said in a statement.
Motorized users, who have historically endured reduced access when public lands are layered with additional levels of protection, seem wary. Most of Colorado’s motorized user groups and clubs filed formal objections to the CORE Act, with many focusing on proposed expansions to wilderness areas that would forever prohibit motorized and mechanized access.
Look at what’s happening with the Bears Ears travel plan proposals following Biden’s expansion of those Utah national monuments, said Marcus Trusty, a third-generation Buena Vista resident who founded Colorado Off Road Enterprise to support motorized access and trails. Proposed expansions for wilderness study areas and wilderness analysis areas in the Utah national monument unveiled in August would prohibit motorized use.
“That plan closes a lot of routes and access points,” said Trusty, whose members often cruise backcountry Jeep roads between Red Cliff and the northern boundary of the new monument. “We are concerned about that. While Camp Hale is nowhere near that size, it’s something we will be watching very closely.”
There is no indication that the new monument will restrict motorized access to historic trails and it specifically notes support for snowmobiling and road-based recreation. But after the monument starts drawing more and more visitors, could that impact historic assets and maybe push land managers to restrict motorized access? That has happened before, said Chad Hixon, the executive director of the Trails Preservation Alliance, which supports access for off-road motorcycles.
“Sometimes with these designations, the increased use can change the dynamic of how these lands are managed,” Hixon said. “I hope this process includes a lot of careful consideration about those unintended consequences.”